Nabeel Rajab, head of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, joins us after nearly two years behind bars for his role in pro-democracy protests. With the critical backing of the U.S. and neighboring Gulf states, the Bahraini government has waged a crackdown on opposition protesters since an uprising broke out in February 2011. "We have been abandoned by the American government. We have been ignored completely," Rajab says. "They support a dictatorship here. ... No one can change their policy except the American people." We are also joined by Human Rights Watch’s Josh Colangelo, author of a new report that finds Bahrain’s courts have played a key role in maintaining the country’s highly repressive political order, routinely sentencing peaceful protesters to lengthy prison terms.
AMY GOODMAN: We turn to the Gulf island kingdom of Bahrain, where a leading human rights activist has been released after nearly two years in prison for his role in pro-democracy protests. Speaking after his release, Nabeel Rajab, head of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, vowed to continue the struggle for democracy under the U.S.-backed monarchy.
NABEEL RAJAB: [translated] With great regret, I was in imprisoned for giving speeches, my participation in defending the human rights in Bahrain. But really, these two years have changed me to be much stronger. Prison, for me, was like a school, and I will continue to fight for the people and human rights and with the political societies ’til we achieve our goals that we started on February 14th.
AMY GOODMAN: The Bahraini government has waged a crackdown on opposition protesters since an uprising broke out in February 2011. Last month, thousands marched at the funeral of a 14-year-old boy who activists say was killed by shotgun pellets fired by police. Meanwhile, a recent report by Human Rights Watch has found Bahrain’s courts play a key role in maintaining the country’s highly repressive political order, routinely sentencing peaceful protesters to lengthy prison terms. The report is called "Criminalizing Dissent, Entrenching Impunity."
For more, though, we go first to the capital city of Manama in Bahrain, where we’re joined by Democracy Now! video stream by Nabeel Rajab, director of the Gulf Center for Human Rights.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, and congratulations on your freedom. How does it feel to be out of prison, Nabeel?
NABEEL RAJAB: Well, first of all, thank you very much, and I’m happy to talk to you, after doing more than two years. And please, before I start, I would ask you and I would urge you, please to continue covering Bahrain, as Bahrain is being ignored and neglected by most of the TV stations and the media, because as they’re owned ruling family in the region here. So I urge you to continue covering Bahrain.
Regarding my two years, there’s a saying that says, that does not kill you, it makes you stronger. That’s what happened to me. I am stronger than before. I am more determined to fight for freedom and democracy in my country. I know the struggle, and as I told you more than two years ago, a struggle for democracy in this part of the world is not an easy thing. It’s a difficult thing. You are dealing with a ruling family that came outside and ruled this country 200 years ago, treated people like slaves. Now we want to change the situation to more democratic environment. It’s not an easy thing. It has a cost, and there will be more costs. We’ve paid a lot of lives, thousands of people behind bars, hundreds of human rights and political activists behind bars. I mean, at least 5 percent of the Bahraini population were in and out of jail in the past three to four years. So it’s very costly. We paid the high cost. We did not yet achieve. But the struggle still goes on. And I think we are—from 14 February, 2011, we started a revolution, a peaceful revolution, calling for democracy. Since that day, we have started one-way ticket, and we are not going to go back 'til we achieve our democracy. We know it's difficult—
AMY GOODMAN: Nabeel, on what charges were you convicted and sent to prison for two years?
NABEEL RAJAB: Well, first, it was two charges against me involving Twitter. One was criticizing the prime minister, and the other one a case filed by the minister of interior, and both of them from the same ruling family. Then again, I was charged with taking part in an illegal protest, which did not take permission. And for those, I got I got two years, for taking part in a protest, peaceful protest calling for democracy and respect for human rights. And I—
AMY GOODMAN: How were you treated in prison?
NABEEL RAJAB: Well, I was the only one, among thousands of political prisoners, isolated from the other prisoners. I was kept in a separate cell in a separate building. I don’t communicate. I don’t mix with the other hundreds and thousands of political prisoners. I was with two, three, sometimes four people. Most of them are charged with criminal charges, far away from my charges. They disconnected me from the outside world. I don’t know what is happening outside. I was not allowed to talk on telephone with my family about what’s happening outside. So I was not aware in what’s happening in the country.
AMY GOODMAN: Nabeel Rajab, you’re speaking to people all over the United States, as well as around the world. What is the role of the U.S. Navy Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, the significance, or what kind of power does the U.S. have in relation to the Bahraini monarchy?
NABEEL RAJAB: Well, Bahrain is maybe other than other country. The Navy plays a big role, the American Navy, more than the American State Department. And for them, the priority is their presence. Priority is their interests with Bahrain. Priority is the arms sale and all that. So we have been ignored completely by American government and Western power. Very disappointing. And I always say, ignoring the struggle of people and supporting dictators, that push people toward extremism. We’ve been abandoned by the American government. We’ve been ignored completely. People are dying. People are—villages are being attacked on daily basis. Most were demolished. I mean, we were one of the worst countries in the human rights report in the past few years. But you don’t see any action taken by the American government.
Instead of that, you see officials going and coming as nothing is happening. They support the dictatorship here. And I don’t know. Maybe they don’t think democracy will serve their interest, so that’s why they completely—so, I urge the American people. Nobody can change that situation, nobody can change the American policy, except the American people. I urge American people to pressure the American government, through your member of parliament, through your congressman, to change the situation, to ask the American government not to support dictators. They are supporting dictators. They are against the struggle of people who are fighting for democracy in this part of—
AMY GOODMAN: Nabeel Rajab, we’re also joined here in New York by Josh Colangelo, who is the consultant to Human Rights Watch, an attorney, who wrote the report, "Criminalizing Dissent, Entrenching Impunity: Persistent Failures of the Bahraini Justice System." Can you talk about the situation Nabeel Rajab has been in and so many others?
JOSH COLANGELO: We have seen since 2011, when massive pro-democracy protests began, that Bahraini courts have consistently convicted people and sentenced them to long terms, essentially for expressing opposition to the political system in Bahrain. If you call for the establishment of a republic in Bahrain, that can get you a life term. If you call for the establishment of a constitutional monarchy, that can get you sent to jail. So this is a pattern that we’ve seen in military courts that were created during the unrest in 2011, and it continues now in civilian courts, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: What are the main findings now and recommendations of this report?
JOSH COLANGELO: So, we found that Bahraini courts, by their own words, meaning if you simply read their verdicts, are sending people away because the people have said, "We want a more democratic form of government here." We also looked at cases in which security personnel have been charged with human rights abuses, including killings. What we found there is, even when courts concluded that security personnel had committed fairly heinous crimes—beating detainees to death, shooting them at very close range—people would get sentences of six months, for example, which you compare to Nabeel’s two-year sentence for being at a peaceful protest, really tells you probably everything you need to know about the justice system.
AMY GOODMAN: And the role of U.S. military sales and the United States?
JOSH COLANGELO: What we have seen is that quiet diplomacy, if that is in fact happening, does not appear to have much effect. What’s interesting to note is that in 2011, after months of a severe crackdown, the king of Bahrain appointed an independent commission to investigate human rights abuses that had taken place, which was, in all honesty, a commendable step. That happened shortly after President Obama openly spoke in critical terms about the situation in Bahrain, which certainly suggests that even public words by the U.S. government can have an effect there. We have not heard those public words in a very long time.
AMY GOODMAN: And how—the story of the Alkhawajas right now? In fact, I wanted to ask you, Nabeel Rajab, another of the many people who have been imprisoned is Abdulhadi Alkhawaja, who also was the director for the Gulf Center for Human Rights, as you were before you were imprisoned and are now. What is happening with him?
NABEEL RAJAB: Well, it is sad and funny that between me and Abdulhadi Alkhawaja, a few meters, and I could not see him for the past three years. I was in a separate building. My uncle was there also. He’s 67 years of age. And he’s a few meters from me, but I could not see him. Unfortunately, those people are facing the same circumstances that I have faced, except they are together. They were not isolated like me, but they kept three or four of them together. But Abdulhadi Alkhawaja represent this issue of how human rights defenders are treated in this country. Other than him, you have Naji Fateel. You have many people. If they are not in jail, they are out of the country, they ran away from the situation, because, except me, I don’t think there are much human rights activists out of jail now. And even—
AMY GOODMAN: Are you going to continue to speak out, Nabeel?
NABEEL RAJAB: Yes, I’m going to continue. In fact, in the past few days, the newspaper were talking about me and telling me that soon I’m going to go back to jail, because I did not keep quiet as they thought or as they expected. But again, I tell you, somebody has to pay the price to achieve democracy and freedom.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Josh Colangelo, what the U.S. could do to change the situation? The significance of the Navy’s Fifth Fleet there?
JOSH COLANGELO: Well, some people say that because we want to have this naval base, that the U.S. is without leverage. In other words, it has to be committed to the current system as it exists. What we know, though, is that the Bahrainis, in their view, are very much reliant on the U.S. for their own security. So, certainly, that is a two-way street. And whatever quiet efforts may have been going on, again, they don’t seem to be bearing fruit, so it’s time to change tack.
AMY GOODMAN: Josh Colangelo and Nabeel Rajab, I want to thank you for being with us. Josh Colangelo, attorney and consultant for Human Rights Watch. We’ll link to the report, "Criminalizing Dissent, Entrenching Impunity." And thank you again, Nabeel Rajab, for joining us now, back as director for the Gulf Center for Human Rights, just released after nearly two years in prison for his role in pro-democracy protests in the island kingdom of Bahrain. He was joining us from Manama, Bahrain.